A Teaching Aside
Wednesday was a hard day for me emotionally. I was working with my afternoon class of autistic children and helping them to make “stained glass windows” using magic markers, coffee filters, and a water dropper. Once they all added probably 1/2 liter of water to each coffee filter before I could grab them (I was holding onto a particularly squirmy child to keep him on task and thus had very limited reach), they started to become obsessed with the water on the table, which by now was much prettier than their coffee filters.
One of them looked at me, cocked his head to the left and then screamed at the top of his lungs, “I am a scientists!” as he took a drop of his blue pool of water and his neighbor’s green pool of water and mixed them together in a clear cup, then dumped the resulting liquid out on the table. Immediately, there was a surge of 6 year olds with droppers mixing colors and seeking my approval of their experimentation. All day as I was working with small groups of students they spontaneously began to “be scientists” and mix colors. One even figured out if they grabbed a coffee filter from me and dipped it into each of the pools it would capillary up and mix in the middle of the filter.
One of them, a little girl, notified me on Thursday that she was going to be a scientist. I asked her what kind of scientist she was going to be she told me, “the bestest one”. I asked again, what was she going to study as a scientist and she told me she was “…going to cure people”. There was no answer of what, be she was dead serious and was not going to be talked out of it by anyone!
About this time the head teacher in the classroom decided to blow my cover and announced to the group that I used to be a scientist before I came into the class to work with them. Lucky for me, this only led to hugs and happy kids asking me to help them make their water prettier. I did have to describe how I used to study children with developmental disorders and see if there was a way I could help them. They liked that. Particularly the one who is proud of being autistic. He wants me to study him (little does he know I already am!).
This experience touched me for two reasons, the first is that my brother loved education and died within a few months of my receiving my doctorate. I still cannot think of autism and science without tearing up a little bit. Mostly because I regret he was not able to see me finish my education. And had we really let him reach his potential, he may potentially had graduated right along with me.
The second reason is that it is truly sad that we as a society will never give this little girl a fighting chance to be a scientist. She is branded with a label that she will never be given a chance to shed, at least not at this point in time. There is too much stigma for her to fight against. The scientific community should be better than that, but I know from experience that they are most decidedly not. And that makes me very, very sad.